BROOKE GLADSTONE:On Wednesday, two Ukrainian fighter jets were downed near the Russian border, not far from where the Malaysian airliner fell. On Thursday, investigators from France and the UN were searching the north of Mali for the wreckage of an Air Algérie flight that crashed carrying 116 people. Lately, the news resounds with havoc from the heavens, so before it gets any worse we thought it was time for a corrective, a “Breaking News Consumer's Guide”, if you will, for plane crashes. James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and, as it happens, a pilot. Thanks for coming on.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about finger pointing. We saw tons of that, and we always do. Let's start with blaming the aviation organizations.
JAMES FALLOWS: Precisely because commercial airline crashes are so rare, most of the time it's something that nobody has thought of, because all the normal predictable threats people have figured out. The other is that in most of these crashes, people don't know for a long time what went wrong, so in all the finger pointing there’s a background fact that it probably is not the thing we’re thinking on that first day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The International Civil Aviation Authority has been reported to make the rules about where you can fly, but they say that’s not their responsibility; it’s the responsibility of the sovereign member states to advise other states of potential safety hazards.
JAMES FALLOWS: Most airline companies are not in a position to do sort of political risk intel for the world as a whole. They can’t tell you where things in Guinea or Mali or Somalia are heating up now. That's what the international bodies are for. So most of the time, there is agreement on these things and we’re seeing now, as they put it, the edge cases, where Ukraine says one thing, Russia says another, the FAA says a third and the ICAO, the international body, says something thing, and they’re all saying, well, “you should have foreseen this,” “no, you should have foreseen it”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about blaming the airlines? They were flying in the wrong place, they were doing it because it was quicker or they could save gas?
JAMES FALLOWS: So most of the blame in this latest case has involved Malaysia Airlines, which I personally feel has been unfairly singled out. I say “unfairly” because most airlines on the day of that flight were going straight over Ukraine, as they had done before which is the way things normally work in the airline world. If airspace is not prohibited, it is presumptively safe and legal. Because some airlines decided not to do that - Air France with was one of them, a few others - the ones that did were presumptively cutting corners, but actually they were doing the normal thing and the others, for their own reasons, had decided not to do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another thing you often hear is the likelihood of pilot error.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. When it comes to small airplanes, when they go down, it’s almost always pilot error. With the airlines, their standards for pilot training are so thorough and they have so many redundancies and checklists, this is usually not the case. And, actually, there have been only a few notable exceptions. The Asiana flight that crashed on landing in San Francisco Airport a year or so ago, that was rudimentary pilot error. There was a tragic commuter plane flight going to Buffalo a few years ago, where the two pilots reacted exactly wrong to what they should do when they encountered icing. The Air France loss over the South Atlantic a number of years ago, that also seems to be a very sophisticated kind of pilot error, where they got into some kind of storm, their autopilot failed, and their training was such that they responded in, in the wrong way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, now you’re making me feel like there’s a lot of pilot error.
JAMES FALLOWS: [LAUGHS] I’m naming you the three flights I can think, as I scrape through the reservoir of commercial airline disasters. And usually, it's not pilot error because these people are better at their jobs than most of us are at ours.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you're watching cable news –
- they have a lot of experts that tell us what we need to know.
JAMES FALLOWS: By definition, anybody they have on the screen is an expert about something, and especially you get this six experts-in-a-box approach that the CNN, in particular, but others have done too. Some of them actually are, some of them are not, and the ones that usually mark themselves to me as being the real experts are the ones who are saying, we don't really know about that yet, it will take a long time to be sure. [LAUGHS] And they may, through reverse-Darwinianism, eliminate themselves from the box over time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Speaking of boxes, there's always a great emphasis on the black box, the magic box that holds all the answers. Does it?
JAMES FALLOWS: In some cases, it does. Now that the Ukrainian separatists have turned the black boxes over to the Malaysian authorities, I don’t think they’re going to tell you very much, if anything, about Malaysia 17 because, by all indications, it was flying around perfectly normally and then it got blown up. And there’s nothing in the black box that would tell you anything other than at time X it was flying normally and at time X plus one second it was falling out of the sky.
In some cases, they tell all. I think in this most recent case, they’re likely to tell very little.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What clues can we glean from who was on it? That's something that's done after a flight.
JAMES FALLOWS: We have seen cases where if there's any airplane which has any connection to the world of Islam or the world of upheaval, we try to think, is there anybody on there who might be Islamic in any way? And you very much saw that after the Malaysian 370 flight, where, “Oh, there’s somebody who was from Iran, might this have been a clue?” Hard facts you come up with on this first trawl, they’re more likely to be misleading than leading.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Back in September, 1983, a passenger plane, Korean Flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet interceptor while on route from Anchorage to Seoul. It crashed into Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers were killed. First the Soviet Union denied the incident, then admitted it, and then Soviet leader Yuri Andropov claimed the plane was a CIA spy plane. Reagan said it was an intentional act of barbarism. Tensions mounted between the US and the Soviet Union. There have been several parallels cited between this event and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. So, when you’re hearing the arguments of governments, what do you take away from that?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, there’s a set of three disasters that are linked together this way that I think of for this political/aviation interchange. There would be, of course, the Korean 007, the shooting of an Iranian passenger airliner by a US warship, the Vincennes, I think in 1988 and now, of course, this event. Each one of these three cases of actually shooting down the plane reveal the murkiness of command and control operations, either in the tactical or the grand strategic level. The tactical level, there were Iranian outbursts at the time, understandably, that the US had intentionally shot down this plane because of the enmity between the US and Iran, but this was a tactical level mistake on the warship, a very terrible one but not a higher level one. For these two episodes of first Soviet and then Russian-related forces apparently shooting down passenger airplanes, it will be about the fearfulness of the former Soviet Union around its periphery, of the way its air defenses were on hair trigger and the Korean Airline flight was just skirting the periphery of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia.
In this latest case, it will be about what the people who shot this missile knew and whose authority they were acting on or under. We don't know that. I assume we will. And my guess at the moment would be some kind of miscalculation, of thinking it was a military plane or something else. But we don't know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Going back to the Vincennes, in the immediate aftermath, there was an outrageous US government cover-up. There were maps that were altered when they were released to the public to suggest that the US Vincennes was in international waters when it was, in fact, in Iranian waters, that the plane was descending in an attack stance when, in fact, it was ascending. In the initial presentation by Admiral William Crowe, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the government offered a completely falsified account. Izzy Stone said “All governments lie,” Is that something that a news consumer should keep in mind?
JAMES FALLOWS: All governments apparently are willing to lie, conceal the evidence, falsify the evidence, whatever, because the plain fact of shooting down a civilian passenger airliner is so horrific on its face, they want to deflect responsibility for that. I don't believe any of these cases will prove to have been intentionally malicious murder. But, in all cases, I think it will be a combination of recklessness and miscalculation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if you could offer some advice about what a news consumer should take seriously at this point and what not, when consuming news about these kinds of tragedies, what would it be?
JAMES FALLOWS: Something like 100,000 planes take off each day in some of a commercial flight and land safely each day, and it is horrible when something goes wrong with them but I think the impulse to think, “Is our air traffic system breaking down, have the regulators gone to sleep, are the pilots drunk,” that is an impulse that often comes through the initial reports, which is worth resisting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about the role of extraterrestrials or the Bermuda Triangle? I think they may have both come up in the discussion of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.
JAMES FALLOWS: More from our experts at 10.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a pilot.